NEW YORK (AP) — Beware of allowing tradition to blind you to the benefits of progress. That's one message from the aptly-titled "Giant," the robust, polished, three-hour new musical that opened Thursday night at The Public Theater.
Like its massive setting of Texas ranch country and its three-decade time frame, "Giant" is presented on a grand scale, with a 22-member cast and a 17-piece orchestra floating above the stage, conducted by Chris Fenwick.
Music and lyrics are by Michael John LaChiusa, the book is by Sybille Pearson, and direction is by Michael Greif. Lush orchestrations are provided by Bruce Coughlin and Larry Hochman. The score contains a range of musical styles, including overtones of country western, swing, blues, Mariachi music and jazz.
"Giant" is based on the 1952 novel about the Texas oil boom by Pulitzer Prize-winner Edna Ferber. Somehow Ferber's sprawling material has been wrangled into a generally cohesive, often-eloquent musical that retains her concern with social issues while examining 25 turbulent years.
Social and political changes overtake several generations of American and Mexican citizens in what one lovely song deems the "Heartbreak Country" of Texas cattle ranch life. The story begins with the whirlwind 1925 marriage of Jordan "Bick" Benedict, a wealthy, stubborn Texas rancher (ruggedly and richly voiced by Brian D'Arcy James,) and Leslie Lynnton, a daydreaming, aristocratic Daddy's girl from Virginia (a tour de force performance by Kate Baldwin.)
The newlyweds are met at the Benedict family ranch, Reata ("rope"), with the powerful disapproval of Bick's hardscrabble older sister, Luz (a rather harsh portrayal by Michelle Pawk) who partners with Bick in running the ranch. Luz bellows out her anger in the unsubtle, "No Time For Surprises," but soon there's a tragic accident, and Leslie takes over with a new, progressive agenda.
Noted performances include Katie Thompson in a lusty portrayal of Benedict neighbor Vashti, who hoped to win Bick for herself. Thompson richly voices Vashti's heartache in "He Wanted A Girl," and later joins Baldwin in a show stopping duet, "Midnight Blues," about the changing nature of married desire over the years.
Lowly, flirtatious ranch-hand Jett Rink, played with slithering relish by P.J. Griffith, is later reborn as a vulgar oil millionaire with zero regard for environmental consequences. In contrast, John Dossett is warmly sensitive as Bick's open-minded Uncle Bawley.
Soon oil derricks despoil the ranch and foul the water, as Rink and others use political chicanery and deceitful lobbying to elevate petroleum to a patriotic necessity. Bick tries to hold onto cherished family traditions and honor the land, but he's outnumbered by other relatives.
In the turmoil, he grows apart from Leslie while brooding over unwanted changes. Baldwin is feline and sexy as she tries to rekindle Bick's interest with the smoothly seductive, "Topsy Turvey."
Ever present in the background are the Mexican servants and vaqueros (ranch hands) and their families, repressed by legalized prejudice and xenophobia. In a hopeful sign for the future, the second act is more focused on the next Benedict generation's absence of prejudice. It's now 1941, and Bobby Steggert and Mackenzie Mauzy bring freshness to the stage as bright, open-minded Jordy and Lil Luz, who are close friends with the Mexican kids their own age.
Miguel Cervantes is scene-stealingly dynamic as young Army enlistee Angel. Together with Mauzy and Jon Fletcher as Luz's would-be boyfriend, Bobby, they animatedly perform the optimistic song "Jump!"
A wide variety of costumes by Jeff Mahshie encompass young Leslie's flapper dresses in 1925, rougher outfits for the ranch hands and Mexican servants, and glamorous period fashions for the wealthy white Texas elite over the ensuing decades.
Multiple interiors and landscapes are suggested by Allen Moyer's spare scenic design, using sheer scrims, wonderful projections that convey mood with weather (clouds, rain, bright sun) and selective furnishings that gracefully appear and then vanish.
In fitting tribute to the original owners of the land, the musical begins and ends with a song sun in Spanish, "Aurelia Dolores" apparently a lovelier way to say "Heartbreak Country."